Why are online communities so popular?

Introduction

In An exploration of the internet publishing revolution, I discussed the implications of the increased self-publishing on the web. The discussion covered general concerns and possible impacts of the sudden growth, but not the reasons behind it. What has prompted the expansion of people's voice on the web? Where have these communities of bloggers and posters come from? Why have they arisen? In this article I intend to find answers to these questions and ask: ‘What makes online communities so popular?'

Terry's old geezer

One important factor in making the internet so popular is the ease someone can squeeze in to their particular niche.

I spend a lot of time looking at the modern world in sheer bemusement: almost every morning I wake to find some part of my body aching (teeth, back - yesterday even thumbs). Once finally numb to these somatic gripes I throw myself unceremoniously out of bed and instinctively tune the radio in to Terry Wogan's breakfast show on BBC Radio 2.

These factors combine to qualify me as a TOG (Terry's old geezer), and I join the ranks of some eight million similarly afflicted people. As a group, TOGs can be seen as an old-media-driven community; a collection of people who are brought together, to a certain degree, by their shared interest.

This is nothing new: from an all-encompassing religion to the geek revelry of Comic-con, people have gathered to share opinions, interests, and beliefs for thousands of years. The online world is no exception; the clustering we see in ‘real-world' society is reflected in the growth of social groups in all forms of world-wide media.

Indeed, the growth of online social groups and interactions has been a bone of contention between sociologists for some time. The social net, an article from Science News, discusses studies into the repercussions of the use of the internet for social interaction. Some support such use, arguing that internet-based social interaction simply makes communication between personal social groups more efficient (think e-mail and instant messaging).

Others suggest that the web may provide a dangerous forum for hate-groups, allowing discussions and interactions that would be impossible in ‘real-world' society. Another study reports that the internet absorbs too much of people's time - even to the point of addiction - leaving little time remaining for healthy physical interaction.

I can appreciate each viewpoint. My entire social calendar is decided through e-mail and instant messaging. I have a blog that gives me the opportunity to broadcast almost anything to the world. And I lost seventeen days playing online computer games - both with ‘real-world' friends and strangers from around Europe.

But, regardless of whether online society is a positive or negative influence or somewhere in between, the growth of forums, social networks, blogging and so on is increasing and continues to be ever-more popular.

So what's fuelling this growth?

Increasingly, the web is an interactive and user-driven medium, moving closer to the read-write web Sir Tim Berners-Lee originally envisaged. Flickr, described by its lead developer as "massively-multiplayer online photo-sharing", grew from a community created by an online game but is now as much about sharing your life and views with your friends as it is about sharing your photographs. Forums and social sites continue to rake in members, the most infamous being MySpace with its forty-three million blog-, photo-, video- and music-loving users.

Facebook, Digg, Slashdot, Threadless: these are but a few of the community sites on the web; there are hundreds, if not thousands, of them out there, varying wildly in size and focus. Whatever your hobby, political view, religion, or almost anything, you will almost certainly find somewhere to voice your opinions to like-minded people.

I think I can say one of the most important factors in making the internet such a popular social mechanism is the ease in which someone can squeeze in to their particular niche. But what else?

Anon.

The internet helps people feel uninhibited and free to express themselves.

Internet communities flourish because they offer a level of anonymity and protection that is simply not available face-to-face. In The online disinhibition effect, clinical psychologist Dr John Suler discusses the power of the internet in helping people feel uninhibited and free to express themselves more openly.

But what about sites that remove that anonymity? MySpace allows you to dedicate part of the web to you: what you look like, who you count as your contemporaries, what you dislike, like, love. Although you could leave details out that identify you, there are millions of people who don't (see, for example, MyCrimeSpace).

Another factor could be that the internet allows for people to listen in on a conversation without actually interacting with others. Known as ‘lurking‘, people (‘lurkers') monitor, but don't actively participate in, online dialogues. Lurkers can keep up-to-date with a group's activities without having to actually to make their presence known. While this sounds underhand (‘lurkers' hardly has positive connotations) it's positive in that it allows for individuals to play a passive part in communities that they might otherwise not join.

One implication of online anonymity is the removal of any notion of status. Online identities often lend no information on social standing, wealth, employment status, race, religion, or any other attribute that could conceivably be used to establish a social ‘pecking order'. This ‘lossy' representation of the individual online therefore results in an entirely level playing-field. Quite often, as is the wont of humans, a hierarchy evolves within an online community, but the moment someone joins they are equal to everyone, regardless of ‘real-world' standing. The internet is a great leveller.

To turn to practical matters, the internet solves a number of problems encountered in the ‘real-world': it's easier to keep large groups of people up-to-date, and to allow them to communicate. In fact, as well as being a great leveller, offering anonymity, and in many cases freedom of speech, the Internet also makes it easier to do what we've all been doing for thousands of years.

Back to the TOGs

When Wake up to Wogan started (or restarted) in 1992, the listeners (who make up the bulk of the programme) were still a community - a somewhat loosely connected community maybe, but a community none the less. It's unsurprising perhaps then to find that they too now enjoy a web presence, and that they have formed their own forum. This has even had an influence on the physical world: they meet up for conventions (and post the photos online of course).

Summary

The expansion of a social internet is providing new possibilities for interactions with people across the planet. It may not be better or worse than the interactions faced in the physical world, but it can be considered a more liberated style of communication.

I asked why online communities are so popular. There are many factors: it seems that the large reach of the internet attracts some. Others may find comfort in the anonymity the internet offers - a chance to broadcast their views to millions without removing their right to privacy. Many delight in not being anonymous, but everyone has the choice. The ability to take part in a community that would otherwise be unavailable to them is another attraction - and being able to take part without carrying the social baggage of class, wealth (or lack of), race, or anything that might prejudice people, can be very liberating.

Maybe it's these possibilities more than any of the other factors that are the driving force behind that expansion; maybe that's what makes it so inviting.

References

Moyles and Wogan bring in breakfast listeners, BBC, 2nd February 2006.
The Social Network, Bruce Bower, 4th May 2002.
Berners-Lee on the read/write web
Transcript of Cal Henderson's talk at the Carson Workshops Summit, Cal Henderson, 8th February 2006.
Latest SNS numbers - MySpace streaks ahead, Read/Write Web, 9th January 2006.
The online disinhibition effect, Dr John Suler, August 2004.
Lurker, Wikipedia, 11th August 2006 (current version).

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